Only with travel for days through the Sahara Desert are the dusty streets of Agadez a welcome sight. Belying its history as a grand city on the Saharan trade route, the dust and unrelenting heat grants no relief from the Sahara but the adobe architecture gives Agadez an almost fanciful Arabian feel as if Aladdin and his magic lamp could be wandering the streets.
The stifling conditions (well over 110 degrees) and flurries of dust slow Agadez into a dawdling city. People walk patiently along the sandy ramshackle maze of streets and past centuries-old adobe houses (some decorated with beautiful fascias) while others lean on mud walls in disinterested conversation. Only the children appear to the energy to defeat the heat with simple but competitive games on the wider streets, their smiles seemingly radiating even more heat. Their earnest pleas of donnez-moi un cadeau are easily ignored before they quickly resume their entertaining activities.
Like a porcupine standing tall on its hind legs, the highlight of Agadez is the 500 year old adobe Grand Mosque. Large wooden poles protruding from all sides provide the spine for the magnificent minaret giving an appearance of a spiky tree. Standing proud and central among the low-set maze of adobe buildings, the minaret is clearly visible from far around, highlighting the Islamic heart of Agadez.
Reputedly, the minaret is the tallest mud building in the world. Several times a day, a steady, unhurried bustle of folks quietly leave the homes or market stalls and proceed to prayer. Mind you, the wonderful minaret is less welcome at dawn as the harmonious chanting of the muezzin and the call to prayer echo through the narrow streets awakening everyone for miles around. Outside of prayer a small fee to a minder allows interested visitors to stroll the narrow dingy staircase barefooted to the top of the minaret for a view over the labyrinthine lanes of the Old Quarter (Vieux Quartier) and the shimmering beauty of the Sahara Desert.
Unkempt corrugated sheds mark the two main markets selling the usual array of food (mainly trucked in from the fertile south and nearer oasis villages) and other goods. The colourful outfits and people are far more interesting than the goods for sale.
Featuring an arid, dusty paddock full of camels, goats and sheep baking in the harsh desert sun, the Camel Market has provided centuries of trade for the nomadic Tuareg people. Oblivious to the stench, all the animals appear to mill around together though the owner will miraculously materialise from the relative cool of a shaded tree as soon as any of his brood are approached. Occasional deals take place after quiet, almost surreptitious negotiation, a handshake and tiny rolls of weathered banknotes are passed.
A strong case for conversion to vegetarianism is the butcher’s area. Goats (and probably other animals) are butchered in surprising numbers, razor-sharp knives skilfully carving cuts of meat on rickety tables with occasionally specks staining the protective robes. No part of the animal is wasted though there is little in the way of sales activity and a complete absence of refrigeration (which begs the question – where does all this meat end up?). The smell permeates the entire area, whole carcasses hanging from posts throughout the area.
A familiar symbol around the necks of many inhabitants is the famed Agadez Cross (croix d’Agadez). Each Tuareg town has its own unique cross still made in the same ancient manner by family silversmiths. A wax model of the desired design is artfully carved before encasing it in a clay mould. The clay is baked in ovens, the wax slowly melted and dripped out through weep holes to leave the final mould. Molten silver is poured into resultant clay mould, cooled with the clay broken away to produce the final silver Agadez Cross. Further carving, scraping and polishing leaves the final beautiful jewellery piece.
While the process is fascinating and the artisan’s skills undoubted, the sales pressure is intense, making Moroccan carpet shop keepers appear shy and retiring in contrast!
Niger is one of the ten poorest countries on Earth with many palpable signs of poverty. It rarely features on a travel itinerary. However Agadez is a remarkable town with superb mud architecture, a photogenic mosque, a lively market and a cultural melting pot where Arabic Africa meets dark Africa. Jump on a magic carpet and enjoy a memorable experience in the grand Saharan city of Agadez.
Photo Credits: Street life, panorama